Water will be SA growth restraint

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 28 November 2010

The dire water shortage in the Karoo provided a stark backdrop for international experts meeting in Stellenbosch on sustainable development and how to achieve economic growth on a planet whose natural resources are stretched to the limit.

98% of all SA water is allocated, and 35% of all arable soil is degraded.

“Three resources are at their limits and are already undermining growth in SA,” said Mark Swilling, academic director of the Sustainability Institute, a non-profit trust working in partnership with Stellenbosch University, listing them as water, coal and arable land.

Swilling is a member of the resource panel of scientists set up by the UN Environment Programme three years ago to find ways of “decoupling” economic growth from depletion of natural resources.

He told panel members who met in Stellenbosch this week that SA’s case was typical of problems African countries faced; “98% of all our water is allocated, and in the past economic growth rates have been tracked by water use rates. If we don’t decouple, our water resource becomes a restraint on growth.”

Swilling said SA’s coal reserves, once said to top 50billion tons, were now put by some researchers at closer to 10billion tons. “We may have already hit peak production so coal, which has been such a key resource, is a major constraint.

“Then soil – we have 14million hectares of arable soil, but 5million hectares are degraded. We’ve got to attend to the question of soil degradation.”

The challenge was to move from identifying the issues at an academic level to implementing changes. “Our economics, our policy making, our global cooperation needs to be informed by this new understanding. Otherwise nothing will change.”

One of the key things countries such as SA needed to do was to invest proceeds from assets like iron, coal and platinum into training, education and other areas to enable the economy’s transformation into one less resource- and energy-intensive.

“There are ways of addressing the problem that will require fairly significant technological innovation,” Swilling said, calling for “a massive upscaling of investment in research and development for sustainability- oriented innovation”.

Many existing and potential technologies could reduce resource use 80% without fundamentally affecting the quality of life.

“(We need) to pick some easy wins. Probably the easiest is to get rid of electric hot water geysers and replace them with solar geysers. They’re tried and tested, work very well, don’t compromise comfort at all and generate jobs if you manufacture locally.”

Speakers at the conference included Yale University professor Thomas Graedel, a world authority on the life cycles of metals. “If you’re a mining company, or Siemens or somebody that makes things, you’re interested in the next five years or 10 years,” Graedel said.

“But in the academic world we say, ‘well, what about the year 2300? Will we have these materials around?'”

He said recycling was essential to make finite resources go further. “Take cellphones. There are something like two billion in service, and 100 million new ones every year. There really are some rich mines above the ground, but we tend only to work the mines below the ground.” Graedel said the average cellphone contained about 60 metals.

Swilling said the work of the research panel confirmed that “the challenge of sustainability is a lot more than just carbon and global warming”.

“It’s really about global resource depletion, which if not addressed is going to … have very negative consequences for the poor.”

By: Anton Ferreira
Source: Times Live

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